Only modest increase in visitors expected this winter 

Hurricanes, new passport rules, fuel costs, strong dollar all play a role in forecasts

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may have been thousands of miles away from Whistler, but they are buffeting the resort nonetheless.

Research done by Tourism Whistler suggests that the hurricanes are playing a role in keeping U.S. travellers at home, and that trend is likely to hit Whistler in the coming months.

"What we are seeing now are some new issues in the U.S. market, most notably the hurricanes," said Ian Dunn, manager of research at Tourism Whistler.

"The economic impact of those appears to be affecting travel."

Tourism Whistler is now downgrading their forecasts for U.S. bookings from a seven per cent increase this coming winter season (November to April) to a three per cent increase.

The hurricanes prompted the U.S. government to ask its citizens not to make travel plans or travel unless necessary until the nation’s energy infrastructure is fully operational again. And the high cost of fuel is also making travel less attractive said Dunn.

"(High fuel cost) is affecting consumer confidence," he said. "Consumer confidence in September dropped 19 points compared to August – that is the lowest it has been in two years. It is a reflection of how consumers are feeling about their current economic situation, so if they are not happy with their current situation they are not going to travel."

Added to this is an on-going concern by travellers about booking because of the rain Whistler experienced last January, the continued strength of the Canadian dollar, and confusion over new U.S. passport rules.

"We are facing some really tough conditions especially in the U.S. market, and that market is a key market for Whistler," said Dunn. "When it is up Whistler does well and when it is down then Whistler is in trouble.

"It is hard to be positive."

Tourism Whistler is predicting that the U.S. market will be down, especially in December and January as the United States continues to recover. The U.S. destination market will be more heavily affected than the regional market.

To date, experts are predicting that the weather this season will be average. If that is the case, said Dunn, its likely confidence will return to the regional market and Washington and local skiers will come back.

The only wrench could be the U.S. passport issue.

"We are planning on doing some hard research on this very shortly," said Dunn. "Right now what we are hearing is that there is a perception out there that passports are required to travel to Canada even though they are not at this stage. So there is some confusion around this and that could be having an impact."

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